Local official: Russia phish attempt reached Florida, but didn't affect presidential election result

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A day after former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson testified that Russia tried to hack the United States 2016 presidential election, a Florida elections official tells First Coast News the attempt failed to alter the result.

"Going back to Oct. 31, we received an email from one of our vendors alerting us to the fact that there was a suspicious phishing email attempt," Clay County Supervisor of Elections Chris Chambless said Thursday, confirming that the vendor he mentioned is VR Systems, which located in Tallahassee.

After an initial scan failed to locate the suspicious email, Chambless says it was discovered in a quarantine folder and was carefully handled. A second phishing attempt happened the next day, also of no consequence, he said, going on to detail the content of the correspondence.

"It claimed to be an updated document for operations of a piece of equipment [from VR Systems]," Chabless said.

"We know that our vendor locks down all of the changes to their equipment some six months prior to an election, so we knew right off the bat that they would never be sending us an email with a document with updated procedures," he continued. "So we knew immediately that it was a phishing attempt."

Chambless, who also serves as president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, sought to place the hack attempt in context, saying it's not uncommon for his office to receive some 3,500 phishing attempts in a given day. He also pointed out that the attack targeted - unsuccessfully - voter registration information that was in read-only format; it didn't even try infiltrating vote tabulation.

"This spear phishing attempt was likely to try to gain access to an office network ... at no time was any tabulation equipment or tabulation network in any jeopardy," Chambless said. "As you know, those are closed networks; they aren't connected to the Internet, so, rest assured that the tabulation - not only the process, but the networks - are always secured from any outside entity."

Which begs the question, what then, would the Russians stand to gain if they couldn't affect the election.

"That's a great point," Chambless agreed. "I do not believe that the end game was merely to hack in to a voter registration or a state elections office, but more so I believe that the end game was just to create voter confusion and concern and distraction about the voting process, to maybe blacken its eye."

Even if the infiltration attempt had targeted vote counts, Chambless says there are many levels of security and cross-check.

"We have a logic accuracy test, and that logic accuracy test will verify the programming of the tabulation system," he said.

And, despite that 64 of Florida's 67 counties - along with several other states - use VR Systems' voter registration system called "Voter Focus," Chambless says the very decentralized nature of election processes in states and districts nationwide adds a de facto measure of security. He emphasized that point referring to former secretary Johnson's testimony yesterday.

"That was one of the key points, is that elections is so decentralized and the fact it is a function of the states, and that's what makes it very difficult to nail down in some sort of a national influencing."

Adding to that, Chambless pointed to a mandatory random audit that is standard operation in any election.

"How would a hacker or a programmer have so much forewarning as far as what, specifically, precinct or contest, was going to be tested and be altered?" he asked.

As for whether the 2016 U.S. presidential election was affected by Russia or any unauthorized entity, Chambless said, unequivocally, "Absolutely not".

"In all 67 counties in the state of Florida, there was random audits that were performed across all methods of voting, and there has never been a verified attempt of hacking in an election in the United States."

If anything, Chambless stated that the meddling will have an opposite effect on future elections.

"What this has done is made it ever so apparent that we need to really look more in depth at the security of our processes, not only in the tabulation booth but all of the ancillary services and systems that we operate as well.," Chambless said. "And that includes the physical security of our facilities."

First Coast News left a message for the Chief Operations Officer at VR Systems on Thursday. We are still awaiting response.

© 2017 WTLV-TV


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